Saturday, April 19, 2014


The pursuit  of Gross National Happiness of fabled flying dragons, precariously perched hillside temples and achingly stunning landscapes, the landlocked country of Bhutan is opening up to the world – one smile at a time Executive summary by darmansjah

Happy and holistic, the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan is preciously untouched by mass tourism, where unspoilt forests, serene monasteries, Mahayana Buddhist historical relics and smiling monks will take your breath (and heart) away.

Getting there From September 2012, direct flights are available from Singapore to Paro Airport via Drukair, with a refuel stop at Kolkata, India. From Kuala Lumpur, fly to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport before connecting to Paro with Drukair, the national carrier airline of Bhutan.

Getting around Independent travel is not permitted in Bhutan; the only way is via a tour operator who will arrange your accommodation, transport with driver and guide, meals and visa with a flat fee (US$200 low season, US$250 peak season). In Singapore, try booking with Druk Asia Private Ltd, or visit tourism council of bhutan’s website :; for a list of tour operators. Or See Lonely Planet’s Bhutan.

BUDDHA POINT gives an impressive 360 degree vista of the Thimphu valley, about a 15 minute drive up from town. With building works expected to be completed by 2013, the gleaming Buddha is Bhutan’s largest statue, reverently overlooking its people and perfect place for photo-taking opportunities.

Foreign influence has definitely seeped into the Buddhist nation in the form of pubs and clubs, where local youngsters revel in night haunts such as INSOMNIA at Paro. Ladies’ nights are on Wednesdays as well, where locals and foreigners meet on the dance floor, and are asked politely to leave by 12 midnight.

Legend tells where bhutan’s national animal was created by the Divine Madman, combining the carcass of a cow and a goat’s skull. See the animals grazing at the TAKIN ENCLOSURE in Thimphu, where you can get the gentle creatures’ attention by feeding them leaves from deciduous trees nearby.

For the ultimate in exculsive, the AMANKORA PUNAKHA stay is unrivalled. Accessible only via a bridge and five-minute buggy ride into the forest, the intimated lodge sits serenely as a former farmhouse built by Her Majesty the queen Mother, now refurbished into just eight suites spread across three short buildings (from US$1,560).

The 3,050 metres high DOCHULA rewards you with beautiful panoramic views of the snow-capped Himalaya mountains on clear days. Walk amongst the 108 chortens, built in honour of fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Proceed for lunch at the sole restaurant there, tucking into local dish ema datshi – a delicious mix of chilli and cheese.

The five-star TAJ TASHI is an ideal starting point in exploring Thimpu, centrally located fro mthe main town and local popular hangout, Hong Kong Street. As one of the biggest hoteliers with 66 rooms, the Taj features hand drawn murals and luxe marble-floored bathrooms in impeccably stylish rooms, where guests can awake to sunrise views of Thimphu’s mountains (from $475).

UMPA PARO is a swanky hotel located near the Paro Airport, also hosting the wedding of Hong Kong actors Tony Leung and Carina lau in 2008. With 20 standard rooms and nine private villas, the resort overlooks the Paro Valley, boasting cultural architecture on the outside – but familiar modern settings within (from $290).

The TASHICHHA DZONG is the site of the Gross a National Happiness office, also where the changing of guard ceremony takes place daily at five in the morning and evening. A huge temple also houses the central monk body, where fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck received his coronation and held his marriage ceremony in 2011 as well.

PUNAKHA DZONG sits like a painting amidst the rushing Mo and Po Rivers, an important religious site built in 1637. The first courtyard houses the government offices, some temples in the second, while the third innermost one – also the most breathtaking – was the main temple where the fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s wdding was held.

Barely twenty minutes after touchdown, our group of four climbs into a minivan and starts bombarding our Bhutanese guide, Kinley with a flurry of questions. Draped in a traditional gho – the highly versatile national robe hiked up to skirt length and paired with knee-high socks – our smartly-attired guide is  unfazed. “You come from stress country, comes his sagely reply. “Relax! Welcome to happy land!.”

Tucked high in the eastern Himalayans between two of the most populous countries in the world, India and China, it is almost forgivable if one has not heard of this Switzerland-sized nation, with a population fewer than 700,000. Isolated for centuries, the landlocked Bhutan first opened its elusive doors a crack in 1972 for King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s coronation, the now 56 year-old monarch responsible for single-handedly balancing the fine line between traditionalism and modern democratization ever since. Fondly known as the father of Bhutan’s modernity, the much-loved former king first opened the country to development – and the world – in 1971 by joining the United Nations, introducing English in the free and compulsory local schools, later also coining the ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) index; the Buddhist country’s measurement of national progress which places heavy emphasis on spiritual well-being.

Tourist numbers spiked, though the nation was also careful to adhere to a policy of ‘low volume, high value tourism’, mostly to retain Bhutan’s ecological, social, cultural and environmental beauty. Nonetheless, eager foreigners and international media came in to conquer with cameras and pens; Bhutan opened its arms and retained every single heart and soul that arrived.

Prayer Piety

Touring Bhutan requires stamina: shoes come off at all sacred sanctuaries: some require long drives and further walks before reaching; others have innumerable steps that separate us from the temples. And rivaling our doggedness in capturing Bhutan’s beauty through our lenses are none other than the locals themselves. Trudging up 72 steps towards the Changangkha Monastery in Thimphu, I meet numerous baby-toting parents with young children in tow, seeking blessings for their descendents. The first act of work ship is inevitably spinning the monastery’s prayer wheels, each fitted with the mantra of compassion, where every clockwise spin is equivalent to a mantra recital. Following an eldery lady moving slowly along on her walking aid, I switch off my camera as we enter the main monastery hall, the wizened woman painstakingly bowling before the altars three times before retreating to a corner to meditate.

Wisdom from Above

Travelling down from Thimphu to our accommodation at Punakha for the night, the van pulls to an abrupt halt, our driver Tenzin hops off and walks towards the commotion in front. We wait thirty minutes before he returns to announce that a huge lorry has veered down the slippery mud ahead, now tilted sideways and blocking the  narrow roads. Obviously used to such occurrences, Kinley proceeds to amuse us with his vast knowledge of the kingdom, including an interesting story of the retired King.

Known to own a home within Thimphu’s forested areas, the fourth king is famous for his frequent bicycle rides while donning the gho – a difficult feat for most. Once, he had to flag a cab down after his bicycle malfunctioned in the woods. Along the ride, the Bhutanese cabby spoke of his financial worries and taxi loans he could not pay, all the while unknowing that he was chauffeuring the king, until he reached the royal gates. With great pride, Kinley recounts how the king had gone home to retrieve an amount that overpaid the cab ride, thus allowing the driver to offset his loans. This story still resonates with the people, the king’s wisdom and grace apparent also in his parliament – a stement I can testify to thanks to the Prime Minister’s display of cycling home from work the day before, which Kinley explains is because every Tuesday has been designated ‘Pedestrian Day’.

The sky frowns in shades of gray, raindrops start falling pitter-patter on our van. More vehicles come to a standstill, forming a chain behind us. To my utter amazement, not one person fires off his anger through the horn, but every car that stops a driver or passenger moves out wielding a torch, all heading to the accident site to offer help. The tow truck comes and we are finally good to go after an hour, the minor incident etching a deeper fondness to this country that’s steadily growing within me.

Colours of the Wind

Colourful flags wave cheerily along every turn along the road, across treetops, between buildings, even above high altitude mountainous areas. They represent the five elements of the universe: fire (red), water (white), environment (green), sky (blue) and earth (yellow). Astrologers will identify the specific element(s) lacking in a person, and the solution is to simply hang up the corresponding flag. That’s religious. Then there are the flags for play – in the national sport of archery.

We see the huge flags billowing in the wind even before reaching the sporting field (read: parking lot), and the players flexing their biceps with bow in hand – but that’s about it. Still tryingto wrap my mind around how the current player before us will shoot his high-tech carbon fiber compound bow 150 metres (that’s further than the typical Olympic distance) towards the target and across dust-filled air, I immediately hear a gong then cheers from the other end – one point for the sharp-shoote. The winning team breaks into song and a wild dance, meant to egg on the rest of their members. Even as we leave, I spot a cow ambling slowly across the shooting range, but the arrows simply whiz past anyway – a game is a game, absolutely nothing and no cow will get in their way.

Color is also evident in the Centenary Farmer’s Market, the main weekend market where Thimphu residents stoc up on vegetables, produces and spices. Teeming with bobbing heads and lots of flies, my camera gets quite a few stares, my cue that I may very well indeed still be in a country untapped and untainted by mass tourism. Stuffing powdered chilli in my bag, we cross over to the alfresco stalls opposite. To our right vendors peddle cheap Billabong shirts and Spongebob shorts; to our left a traditional treasure trove, where my travelling mate scores a gorgeous handheld prayer wheel and learns the chants to go along while spinning the wheel clockwise, over and over.

Flying the Tiger

Over the days, I quickly learn that every climb we make, the distances we cover on foot and the muscle pulls we earn will finally cumulate to our trip’s single most trying site: the Tiger’s Nest. Perching precariously 10,000 feet above sea level in Paro, legend has it that around the eight century, the reverend Guru Rimpoche flew across the mountains on the back of a tigress, making the Taktsang lhakhang home. A must-visit attraction in Bhutan and plastered across postcards countrywide, the monastery was built in 1692, but suffered the ruins of a fire in early 1998. Now renovated and restored to its former glory, the aims is to scale this national treasure, and return home glorious.

Testing out our walking sticks, I look up to see Kinley and Tenzin already 10 metres ahead and waiting patiently for us to finish our warm ups. I ask how many times they’ve both been up the Tiger’s Nest, and immediately wish I hadn’t. “Two hundred and twenty times Miss Natalie,” chirps Kinley, before zipping his way up the uneven terrain. I do not wait for Tenzin’s reply as he grins at our group, determinedly making my way up the forested area.

As we go higher, the paths narrow inwards and become trickier to navigate, often bypassing bumps, twisting turns, and lots of cow dung. It still amazes me how the animals manage to climb this high to graze, but my resolve is clear – to make it to our first checkpoint: the cafeteria. One hour and ten minutes later, our first-timer trekking group wheezing in slight disarray, we arrive to steaming hot black tea and buttery biscuits. We wolf the treats down; surprised at our own hunger since breakfast was a pretty hearty affair earlier. Breath steady now, I pause to gape at the commanding sight before me, where some say the cafeteria provides the best views directly across the Tiger’s Nest. No time to lose, we continue our hike up the well-trodden trek.

The record to beat was nine hours-the longest time ever recorded to conquer the Tiger’s trek. Reaching the top at exactly noon, we grudgingly hand our cameras and cell phones to the solitary police officer there – no photography is allowed at any temple, no questions asked. Heading up more flights of steps, Kinley takes us to the first of two temples within the sacred site. As we sit to rest on the cool stone floor, Kinley points out newer paintings that cover the areas that were devastated by the fire, and how Guru Rimpoche’s statue at the altar area had miraculously survived the blaze. At the next pilgrimage site we see a young monk prostrating repeatedly before the altar – an act I later learn signifies respect to the gods, and a way of accumulating good fortune for oneself. Climbing higher sends an excited ripple through the group, when we finally ascend to the peak and to nature’s glorious abandon. Tucked in a position right beneath the clouds and above some of the world’s highest peaks, no words can describe the weightless feeling of surmounting Taktsang Lhakhang, a personal feat I will remember for year to come.

Journeying down proves way easier, where I count exactly 785 steps before reaching the cafeteria for lunch. Our guides are still eating as we leave, giving us a 30 minutes lead time before joining us on the way down. I try to conceal my shock (quickly turning into exasperation) as we turn a particularly steep bend, only to see Kinley waving cheerily before us. We spend some time at the mountain’s base checking out jewellery, trinkests and prayer wheels being sold at the makeshifts stalls, make our purchases and leave. Oh and for the record, our climb took a total seven hours. Mission accomplished.

The Democratic Dragon

At its core, Bhutan is a sleeping dragon, holding close to its roots where its people are required to dress in traditional garbs: kiras for women and ghos for men; where color sashes indicate societal rankings; and smoking banned. Tradition also decrees that kings receive white scaves upon coronation – but Bhutan’s newest king was having none of that.

Receiving the raven crown fro mhis father, fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the young Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became the first king to lead Bhutan into democracy in November 2008, also the world’s youngest reigning constitutional monarch at age 28 then. Known as K5 – the fifth king – and the ‘prince charming of the Himalaya’s thanks to his easy smile and slicked back hair, the Elvis fan may steer clear of daily governance, but stays true to his father’s vision of upholding the GNH, defending Bhutan against the worst aspects of globalization.

The world subscribes to the GDP, but Bhutan favours instead the GNH. Here, happiness is not just a term; it literally is a way of life. It doesn’t matter if countries are banning the growth of poppy plants (the Blue Poppy is Bhutan’s national flower), it doesn’t matter if Lady Gaga is marking Bhutan as one of her concert stops (just a thought), it doesn’t even matter if the deadline is tomorrow and the work is only half done. If the family, a friend or personal matter calls for attention, then the Bhutanese does what he or she has to do – drops everything on hand and quite simply, leaves. I might add that this doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of diligence – but rather the Kingdom’s emphasis of happiness and wellness over materialistic lifestyles.

And there must be some truth to this emphasis, because the United Nations has officially implemented ‘happiness’ as part of the global agenda in April this year, after a unanimous vote by the General Assembly in late 2011. K5 probably sums it up best: “I believe that while Gross National Happiness is inherently Bhutanese, its ideas may have a positive relevance to any nation, people or communities – wherever they may be”.

I snap one last picture of the King and his Queen smiling down at me from a billboard at Paro Airport’s singular runway, send a prayer to the heavens for a safe trip home, and leave with a quiet hum of joy in my heart.

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